07 October 2021, The Tablet

Why compulsory Covid vaccination for seafarers is a good idea

by John Wilson

The fact is, if you have been vaccinated, the likelihood of serious illness or death is limited.

Why compulsory Covid vaccination for seafarers is a good idea

Seafarers disembark to receive the Covid-19 vaccination at Bremische Häfen in Bremerhaven in July this year.
Sina Schuldt/dpa/Alamy

The shipping industry is considering whether to make Covid-19 vaccinations compulsory for the world’s 1.6 million seafarers – and I, for one, believe it to be a positive move.

This was a hot topic at London International Shipping Week recently. Delegates heard stories of how seafarers in certain parts of the world had been prevented from receiving life-saving treatment after falling ill, while others were forced to continue sailing with a dead colleague in the ship’s cold room. I can only imagine what these people have gone through. 

One way of reducing horrific situations such as these is mandatory vaccinations. The fact is, if you have been vaccinated, the likelihood of serious illness or death is limited. It's not eroded completely, but the chances of you dying or having to be hospitalised are reduced greatly, as is the case for everyone in society. It is a sensible way forward.

The underlying message at the moment is that if you're not vaccinated, you will not be employed; but the authorities, shipping companies and crewing agencies who supply workers to their vessels are yet to make it mandatory. 

It is estimated that around a quarter of the world’s seafarers have received vaccinations to date. The UK, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands are among the countries to offer free vaccinations to visiting seafarers, many of whom are from nations with low vaccination rates or limited vaccine availability.

Yet if I go on board a ship and offer vaccinations, the decision about whether to allow this might be taken by the ship’s captain or the company’s head office. Crew members may put themselves forward for vaccinations, only for them to be denied.

John Wilson believes vaccination should be compulsory for seafarers.

London International Shipping Week also heard that a third of seafarers remain reluctant to receive a vaccine. By making vaccinations compulsory, we can reduce the confusion around the topic and rapidly increase the number of seafarers who are vaccinated, protecting them and their colleagues. 

The other major issue is around obtaining official proof of having received a vaccine. We offer the vaccine, free of charge and willingly, to all seafarers at local drop-in centres. However, the problem that visiting seafarers have when they are vaccinated in the UK is that there is no recognised certification being issued to say they have received the vaccination; and as they are not registered with the NHS, they cannot access the official Covid-19 App.

For them to be able to satisfy regulation in their home country and prove that they've had the vaccine, they need a formal certificate - either hard copy or digital. Every day I receive phone calls, text messages and emails from seafarers who are headed home asking about this. This is also an international problem: for example, when British nationals are vaccinated abroad.

We need the IMO (International Maritime Organisation), ILO (International Labour Organisation) and WHO (World Health Organisation) to produce a framework which will be uniform throughout the world.

The wellbeing of crew is paramount: seafarers’ welfare must come first.

John Wilson is chief executive officer of Liverpool Seafarers Centre, a partnership between the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea (Liverpool) and the Anglican Mersey Mission to Seafarers. Read about the LSC’s work at www.liverpoolseafarerscentre.org and on Twitter @Liv_Seafarers. Contact the LSC at [email protected] or donate to its mission at www.paypal.com/paypalme/liverpoolseafarers

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